I’ve probably asked myself that question a million times. Does it take championship trophies or the validation of your bosses? Does it mean getting a job when no one else has one or racking up wins in the face of stronger opponents?
As far as I’ve been able to tell in my short 28 years the answer is both… and neither. Being a champion is something others seems to see in you, but only if you see it in yourself first. I’ll be the first to admit I have my fair share in insecurities, some of them real and most of them not. But my those around me are quick to point out when I let those insecurities take over my inner will, the will that drives all of us to be true champions in whatever it is we do.
I bring this up because over his entire career there’s been this question hovering over Kobe Bryant. Fans, critics, sports journalists, amateur bloggers, and the like have analyzed and discussed Kobe to death because of everything that he is– young superstar, egotistical ball hog, amazing playmaker, alleged criminal, maturing leader, arrogant athlete, devoted father, unfaithful husband… the list goes on.
As a self-avowed Lakers fan for life it does make it near impossible for me to be truly objective when it comes to Kobe. He’s been the greatest legend and my favorite player through my teens and 20’s (Magic ruled my childhood and Jordan fell somewhere in between). But putting all that aside I think there’s a greater element in Kobe that makes us all question whether he is or isn’t a true champion; that he’s a reflection of all of us.
No, most people can’t make countless buzzer-beaters or crazy dunks or instinctive no-look passes. But that’s not what I mean. In most every way Kobe Bryant is the reflection of most people at their best… and at their worst. When Kobe becomes too obsessed with winning he alienates his teammates and has strapped it all on his back to win the game, much like a parent so obsessed with work that it drives away his/her family. But at his best, Kobe has willed his way to winning games and championships, primarily by trusting those around him and helping them grow in the best they can be, much like a teacher or kind stranger offering their hand to another person in need of their help.
Being a champion is recognizing the darkness in oneself and doing what it takes to stay focused on staying on the right path towards true victory. Or as legendary boxer Jack Dempsey once said: A champion is someone who gets up when he can’t.
Maybe the same applies to all of us; knowing what our limits are and pushing just past them. Doing what we do for the end goal, not the right now. Leaving a job we hate because there’s something better for us, or staying at it longer because we have other more important things to protect. Or when we do find something we are meant for being a champion is knowing that you’re doing it better than anyone else can because you’re putting in what others aren’t willing to. That’s what I believe it means to be a champion. Not trophies, not salary promotions, not championship parades or climbing to the top of a mountain– those are just byproducts of being a champion. Being one starts within oneself, where you have the confidence to endure but the clarity to succeed.